So ABC has a new primetime show out, Of Kings and Prophets, a biblical drama based on the story of Saul and David. I checked out the series premiere this week to see what kind of approach they were taking, and they decided to open with what some consider one of the most difficult passages of the Old Testament: Saul’s slaughter of the Amalekites . . . at the Lord’s command.
I was disappointed with the episode. My problem, however, was not with the sex and violence; that’s right there in the Old Testament. Nor was it with them taking on a controversial passage; that’s fair game too. My problem was this: the story is told in such a way as to justify anachronistic stereotypes about the ancient world, and to simultaneously glorify the supposed superiority of our own modern civilizational greatness.
In multiple scenes, Samuel the prophet enters as the archetype of ancient, superstitious backwardness, saying essentially:
Elohim wants you to slaughter all the Amalekites, men, women, and children, for no apparent good reason.
Saul responds as the mouthpiece of twenty-first century enlightened civilization:
Forget such ridiculousness! I’m out to unite the people, so that we can be a light to the nations and bring the world together. Banish such irrational mythology from the pragmatics of politics.
Yet Saul is ultimately before his time, trapped in an ancient, superstitious culture, and succumbs to the pressure to rape and pillage in the name of his tribal god—while his barbaric people cheer and rejoice to see him flog and flay the Amalekite prisoner king.
One climactic scene sums it up well:
Saul: ““The Lord I revere does not slaughter women and children.”
Samuel: “He made you in his image.”
In other words, Samuel flips the historic interpretation of the image of God on its head, from being a marker of our invaluable dignity and worth, to being a sign of our barbaric cruelty because we were created in the image of a brutal warlord of a god.
Okay, Of Kings and Prophets is making some bold theological claims here. Let’s start by exploring the controversial passage in question: did Saul annihilate the Amalekites?
Were the Amalekites a “Genocide”?
There are a few places in the Old Testament where Israel is given some drastic marching orders for the residents of the Promised Land: “show no mercy,” “utterly destroy them,” and “do not leave alive anything that breathes.” (Deut 7, 20). At first glance, these marching orders can sound genocidal.
Of Kings and Prophets takes a face value, literalistic, “kill them all” reading of these orders—and uses the scene to depict the Israelites as unenlightened ancient savages, brutally slaughtering women and children. There’s good reason, however, that Hebrew scholars reject such a reading, on grounds from the biblical text itself. My book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet, goes into much more detail on this, but let me here summarize a few observations.
First, these “drastic marching orders” are given in the context of cities (‘ir), and in the ancient Middle East cities were not civilian population centers like they are today, but small, fortified military outposts guarding the roads leading up to the hills where the civilians were.
So when we read of Israel taking out ancient cities, we should think of knocking down military forts, not civilian massacres. They’re tearing down the Great Wall of China, not demolishing Beijing; invading the Pentagon, not laying waste to New York City.
Many of our images for ancient warfare come from the Middle Ages, where people would run inside the city when battle broke out, for protection. But in the ancient Middle East things were different; people ran up into the hills, looking to the cities, or fortified military outposts, for protection. As respected Old Testament scholar John Goldingay notes of this era:
When a city is in danger of falling, people do not simply wait there to be killed; they get out . . . Only people who do not get out, such as the city’s defenders, get killed.
1 Samuel 15 takes place in the context of an ambush on a “city” (v. 5), so we should have the picture of a military installation and its defenders in mind.
Ancient Trash Talk
Second, these “drastic marching orders” use what I like to call ancient trash talk, or exaggerated war rhetoric. Throughout the Middle East, this was the way ancient peoples talked about war (you can read loads of examples from this era), using hyperbolic language that nobody expected you to take literally.
Think of it like sports trash talk today: when a basketball team beats their opponents, you expect to hear them say things in the locker room like, “We wasted them! Wiped the floor with them! They couldn’t get a thing past us!”
Eavesdropping, you might think the score was 120-0, but when you ask your friend on the team what the actual score was, he replies, “120-105.” You realize it was still a decisive victory, but not anywhere near as drastic as the rhetoric alone would lead you to believe. The basketball team is not telling lies in the locker room. They simply expect you to understand trash talk is an exaggerated way of speaking.
It’s commonplace in ancient history books to read about nations being supposedly wiped off the face of the earth, then next year they’re back again, strong as ever, causing mayhem and destruction like never before. As Christopher J. H. Wright, one of the leading Old Testament scholars of our day, summarizes,
We must also recognize that the language of warfare had a conventional rhetoric that liked to make absolute and universal claims about total victory and completely wiping out the enemy. Such rhetoric often exceeded reality on the ground . . . This is not to accuse the biblical writers of falsehood, but to recognize the literary conventions of writing about warfare.
The Old Testament itself makes clear it is using hyperbole. This language is very rare, used in only two passages to describe actual battle scenes (once in this 1 Samuel 15 passage Of Kings and Prophets takes on, the other in Joshua 9-12 which I discuss in more detail here). And each time, we only have to go a little farther in the story to find the same enemies (who were supposedly wiped out) are still very much alive, still very powerful, and still causing problems.
In this 1 Samuel 15 story, for example, all the Amalekites are supposedly wiped off the face of the planet. But if we just go a little farther in the story, the Amalekites are back causing havoc again soon after, and strong enough to take David and his men’s families captive. (1 Samuel 30:1-2) And when David’s crew is rescued, over 400 Amalekites in the immediate vicinity escape.
Later in Israel’s history, Haman the Amalekite, a descendant of King Agag, tries to genocidally wipe out the Jews in the book of Esther. The Amalekites are a force to be reckoned with for a long time to come.
It’s true the rare and troubling phrase “all men and women, young and old” does show up in 1 Samuel 15, but in English this phrase is misleading. Hebrew scholars note this was a stock phrase used to imply totality and did not require that women and children were actually present in the militarized outposts, only that the forts were totally depopulated in the aftermath of victory.
Ancient audiences would, again, assume “women, young, and old” were nowhere nearby, or would have fled during a time of battle. So when we’re told no survivors are left, it is simply stating the obvious: the fort has been taken over, and all its defenders have either fled or been killed.
How The Story is Told
Of Kings and Prophets refuses to do their homework and perpetuates a caricature, opening their series with Israel depicted as ancient barbaric savages, massacring civilian women and children because their stone-age god can’t get over something that happened ten generations ago.
It’s true, the rationale given in 1 Samuel 15 is how the Amalekites treated Israel when they first came out of Egypt. (v. 2) But the television portrayal ignores how this functions within the broader Hebrew storyline: it’s a marker of the Amalekites ongoing story. They are Abraham’s descendants who opt out of the covenant (through Esau) and over the generations stand continually and aggressively hostile to Israel (Genesis 25; Numbers 14:45; Judges 3:13; 6-7; Esther 3). As John Allister observes:
The Amalekites weren’t just any old people. They were the nation who more than any other tried to destroy Israel. They had been trying to eradicate and plunder Israel from the very birth of Israel, 200-400 years before the command in 1 Samuel 15, and they would continue for another 600 years.
Of Kings and Prophets opens using this ancient story from 1 Samuel 15 as a foil for our own civilizational aspirations, a mirror to see how much better we are than our barbaric ancestors, with an implicit self-congratulatory narrative in the style of the New Atheists’ rhetoric: that humanity has moved on and such gods, while they may make for fanciful stories and 300-style bloodlusty entertainment, should ultimately be left behind.
The irony is that, as I show in my book, the modern West has been way more brutal than anything ancient Israel could have dreamed up. Our 20th century bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam and more make 1 Samuel 15 look like child’s play. While Israel was taking out a military installation, the modern West has looked a lot more like the caricature: demolishing civilian population centers, massacring tens of thousands en masse, and being driven by an ideology of our civilizational greatness.
Perhaps Hollywood should make a show about that.
Sidenote: what’s up with all the lead male roles apparently being white (rather than Middle Eastern), perpetuating the powerful colonial mythos of light-skinned Western warrior heroes surrounded by an exotic harem of ethnic women? Ugh. Come on Hollywood.